A Look At Secondary Characters
It’s often said that characters are the heart of the story, and most of the time people are referring to the central protagonists when they say this. It’s only natural; the central figures are the most prominent in the novel, the ones that people remember. But this article is about the supporting players, the secondary characters whose presence can have a massive impact on the quality of the story, and who are sometimes overlooked.
Now just to clarify, secondary characters are those who support the main protagonist, help to enhance the narrative, and serve to populate the story believably. There may be secondary characters that are unnecessary to the book, while others may have a permanent and essential role in the plot. Yet the action does not revolve around them, but around the protagonists.
Secondary characters can have a number of purposes in a novel, and when used well they can raise the standard of the entire book. The more interesting you make the people your protagonist interacts with, the more you will entertain the reader. A well written secondary character can be an aid in getting your central protagonist to shine, perhaps by providing a dynamic counterpart to riff off – remember the banter between James Bond and Q as they go through all of the gadgets and weapons he’s issued?
You can also use a secondary character to reveal more about your protagonist while drawing in the reader. Want to show how your protagonist reacts to injustice? Have him run across a petty tyrant or bully in his travels. The more of a jackass you make the bully, the more your readers will side with the protagonist and the more heroic he will seem.
Or perhaps you need the character to serve a plot function, to reveal an important detail or use their special skills to aid the protagonist in their time of need. The wise old man who crafts a new weapon for the hero to use against his enemy, or the street urchin who catches sight of an important detail that reveals the location of the princess, maybe even the former friend or dispirited ally who joins the battle at the last instant and turns the tide. With this method the key thing is to round out the character so they don’t feel like a plot device.
You should treat the secondary character just like one of the central protagonists, they need their own motivations and reasons for being in the right place at the right time to aid the protagonist. Make sure the urchin wasn’t just wandering about when he saw the bandits kidnap the princess, but he could have been scrounging for food because that alley is near the market. Just remember that the author needs to keep the characters and their actions plausible.
Secondary characters can also make an emotional impression, when you work on developing a character and their relationship to the protagonist, it has much more impact when they die. This method of using secondary characters is very popular across fiction as a way of upping the intensity and seriousness of the situation, for this reason secondary characters have almost as poor chance of survival as the redshirts from Star Trek.
[SPOILER ALERT: The Night Angel Trilogy]
Take the example of Jarl from Brent Week’s The Night Angel trilogy – he is the childhood friend of the protagonist Kylar, the reader has seen them grow up together and watched their relationship strain with Kylar training to be an assassin. After later reuniting and working with Kylar, Jarl’s sudden murder shocks the protagonist, even more so later when Kylar realises it was his actions that caused it. Because Jarl was a well developed character, the reader feels the loss with the protagonist, though admittedly it’s very centred on Kylar’s grief rather than the reader’s relationship in this instance. Still, there are some occasions where the reader doesn’t even have to form a close relationship to the character to feel his loss.
[SPOILER ALERT: A Game of Thrones]
Think of the scene in Martin’s A Game of Thrones where Arya’s dancing master Syrio Forel sacrifices himself so that she can get away. Martin has established the character as the crafty and demanding swordsman in Arya’s chapters and the fight scene shows a chance of victory that is quickly dashed. Part of the reader yearns for him to escape with Arya, yet he stands to the last in a way so true to his character concept with the line, “The First Sword of Braavos does not run.” With little effort Martin has established the character, playing on Forel’s relationship to Arya, and made us care about him to the point where we feel sorry for the loss.
On the opposite track, secondary characters are well known sources of comic relief, helping to break up the tragedy of a story. Even in Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, you have the mercenary Cosca whose drunken antics and devil may care attitude bring some humour to the pages. It’s perhaps the success of this character which prompted Abercrombie to make him a POV character in Best Served Cold, and this leads me to my next point.
It is important not to get carried away with your creation; it’s possible you might find yourself really liking a secondary character you’ve created and drawing them more and more into the story. If the character has a purpose then that’s fine, but they need to justify their presence at all times, otherwise the character you love will slow the pace and ruin the story. You can always set them up as a main character in another book.
One of the greatest benefits of interesting secondary characters is the way they can be used to liven up the parts of the story where nothing is going on. Maybe you need to get some narrative information across, maybe there is a necessary lull in the action, or a moment of drawn out anticipation – too often these instances can become bland and stodgy, appearing to the reader as obvious filler material. Adding in a quirky character or two can keep the narrative fresh, particularly with an element of conflict mixed in as well.
In Glen Cook’s The Black Company, his two mages Goblin and One-Eye help to liven up any dull moments on the march with their continuing feud in a steadily escalating series of magical pranks.
Possibly the hardest thing in a novel is to make every part of the narrative interesting, to make every line worth remembering. Having a host of well written characters that the reader is eager to see will help you to keep the writing from becoming flat and informational, sounding like a plot leaflet rather than a real story.
Whatever your reason for introducing a secondary character, just like the protagonists, you then have to face the challenge of actually making them interesting. It is perhaps even more important to have something memorable jump out at you with a secondary character, as they can have far less time to make an impact and develop. Fortunately all the traditional techniques used with central characters can apply, though the application may be slightly different.
For example, it’s a good idea to give your protagonist a few quirks or traits to differentiate them and give your heroes a personality – these may be subtle things like a particular way of speaking, or a habit that reveals something about the character. When you apply this to secondary characters you need to amp it up a bit, if your hero has a bleak outlook on life, make him the most massive pessimist you have ever seen. Your protagonist, and as such your reader, may only see this character for a page or two, so don’t be afraid to go over the top with their personality.
While you don’t want to overshadow the protagonist, subtle traits don’t hack it when you just glimpse a person; they have to be “larger than life” characters to stick in the reader’s mind. It doesn’t even have to be a personality trait; it could be something to do with the environment. I read about a character who was obsessed with chasing down a two headed rat that none of his friends believed existed. You didn’t need much detail about the man in question, his whole scene was focused on the chase, and the intensity of his obsession was enough to make him memorable, and give the narrative some colour. Try and think of something unusual that you can use to distinguish the character. What could seem ridiculous for a central protagonist may work well in a short burst for a supporting character.
So the next time you introduce a secondary character, spend a little more effort on making them memorable, the protagonist may carry the story, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a little help.
This article was originally posted on September 20, 2013.